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Georgia Court Reviews Uninsured Motorist Law in Car Accident Claim

A victim injured in a car accident must adequately plead and prove several elements in order to recover damages for any resulting pain and suffering. In most cases, each driver’s automobile insurance carrier will be involved in the court action to some extent. Under certain circumstances, a driver’s insurance carrier could attempt to legally deny coverage, thereby rendering the driver “uninsured.” When this happens, the injured party could potentially seek “uninsured motorist” (“UM”) benefits from his or her own policy. Claims arising under a UM policy are complicated and require strict awareness and attention to detail. If you have been injured in a car accident, it is important to consult with an experienced Atlanta injury attorney, who is fully familiar with the most effective way to recover damages for your injuries under the local laws.

Under Georgia law, an insured motor vehicle could effectively become uninsured, when a driver’s liability carrier denies coverage, as long as that denial is legal. In a recent case, Castellanos v. Travelers Home & Marine Insurance Company (Ga. Ct. of App. 2014), the plaintiff was injured in a car accident due to the negligence of another driver, Jose Santiago. The plaintiff’s car was insured by Travelers, and he was also a named insured under a UM policy. The plaintiff sued Santiago for his injures. Santiago’s insurance carrier, United Automobile Insurance Company (“United”), defended the case.

The plaintiff also served his UM carrier, Travelers. The case proceeded to trial, but Santiago did not attend, and a jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then sought to recover payment of the judgment from United as Santiago’s liability carrier. United denied coverage, based on Santiago’s lack of cooperation in the defense of the lawsuit and the failure to attend the trial. The plaintiff then sought payment from Travelers under the UM policy. Once Travelers failed to pay UM benefits, the plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging, among other things, that Travelers’ refusal to pay UM benefits was made in bad faith.

Travelers argued that Santiago was not an uninsured motorist because there was no evidence that United’s denial of coverage — due to Santiago’s lack of cooperation in the defense — was a legal denial of coverage. The trial court ruled in favor of Travelers, concluding that the plaintiff did not present evidence that United legally denied coverage. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the court improperly placed the burden on him to provide evidence that supported United’s denial of coverage. The court of appeals agreed.

Here, the court pointed out that under Georgia law, the failure to cooperate can in some cases provide a legal basis for a liability insurer to deny coverage. Furthermore, once the plaintiff showed that he was entitled to UM benefits, it was then up to Travelers to present evidence sufficient to justify its denial of coverage. Therefore, the court concluded that the lower court improperly shifted to the plaintiff the burden of presenting evidence to rebut Travelers’ affirmative defense. Three judges dissented to the majority’s opinion, citing well-established principles of Georgia law.

From this one case, we can see how complicated the notion of uninsured motorist coverage can be, depending on the particular facts and how they are presented. Victims of car accidents often suffer physical injuries as well as other losses. In many cases, the injured parties are entitled to a recovery for such items. An experienced injury attorney who handles auto accident cases would be able to assess the situation and approach the case in a manner to achieve the best possible recovery under the circumstances.

Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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